Flat Broke In The ’70s: Americathon (1979, directed by Neal Israel)


The year is 1998 and America is flat broke.  Paper currency is now worthless and, to the joy of Ron Paul supporters everywhere, all transactions are done in gold.  After the country ran out of oil, people started using skateboards and bicycles for transportation and many turned their cars into homes.  While the citizenry spends their time consuming a steady diet of sitcoms and reality television, the government tries to figure out how to pay back the loan that it took from Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), a Native American who made billions after buying Nike.  Birdwater wants his money back and he is prepared to foreclose on the entire country.

Newly elected President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) is not helping.  A combination of Jack Tripper and Jerry Brown (who was gearing up to challenge Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries when Americathon was first released), Chet Roosevelt is a spaced-out former governor of California who speaks in 70s self-help slogans and who is more interested in getting laid than leading the country.  Roosevelt governs out of The Western White House, a condo in California.  When an ad exec named Eric McMerkin (Peter Reigert) suggests a month-long telethon to raise the money to pay off the loan, Roosevelt leaps at the chance.

Hosted by Harvey Korman, the telethon (which is called, naturally, the Americathon) features a wide variety of acts.  There’s a ventriloquist.  Jay Leno boxes his grandmother.  Meat Loaf destroys a car.  Even Elvis Costello and Eddie Money make brief appearances.  While Chet falls in love with one of the performers, his chief-of-staff (Fred Willard) plots, with the leaders of a new Middle Eastern superstate, to sabotage the telethon.

Based on a play by the Firesign Theater, Americathon has a big, talented cast that is let down by Neal Israel’s uncertain direction and a script that is only rarely funny.  The idea of America hosting a tacky telethon to pay its debts sounds like a good SNL skit (especially if Bill Murray played the host) but the premise is too thin for a feature film.  Like Airplane! or The Naked Gun films, Americathon is a movie that tosses every joke it can against the wall to see what will stick.  If the jokes are good, like in Airplane!, that formula can lead to a comedy classic.  If the jokes are bad, not even John Ritter, Harvey Korman, and Fred Willard can make them funny.

Today, if Americathon is remembered, it’s because it supposedly predicted several future events.  Americathon does take place in a future where China is an economic superpower, Nike is a huge conglomerate, and reality game shows are very popular.  But, even with those correct predictions, Americathon is a such a film of its time that it was probably dated from the minute that it was released.  Just the sight of John Ritter in a condo permanently marks Americathon as a film of and about the ’70s.

George Carlin does score a few laughs as the narrator and Elvis Costello performs both Crawlin’ To The USA and (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.  Eagle-eyed viewers might want to keep an eye out for the tragic Playboy playmate, Dorothy Stratten, who has a brief non-speaking role.  Otherwise, Americathon is as hopeless as the country it’s trying to save.

A Movie A Day #114: Scavenger Hunt (1979, directed by Michael Schultz)


When game designer Milton Parker (Vincent Price) dies, all of his greedy relatives and his servants gather for the reading of his will.  Parker’s lawyer, Benstein (Robert Morley), explains that Parker is leaving behind a $200 million dollar estate to whoever can win an elaborate scavenger hunt.  Dividing into five teams, the beneficiaries head out to track down as many items as they can by five o’clock that evening.  Among the items that they have to find: a toilet, a cash register, an ostrich, a microscope, and an obese person.  Hardy har har.

The five teams are made up of a who’s who of sitcom and television actors who had time to kill in 1979.  The Odd Couple‘s Tony Randall is Henry Motely, who is Parker’s son-in-law and who works with his four children.  Soap‘s Richard Mulligan plays a blue-collar taxi driver named Marvin Dummitz (because funny names are funny) who teams up with his friend, Merle (Stephen Furst).  The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Cloris Leachman (an Oscar winner, no less) gets stuck with the role of Milton’s greedy sister, Mildred.  She works with her conniving lawyer (Richard Benjamin) and her stupid son (Richard Masur).  Maureen Teefy plays Milton’s niece while his nephews are played by Willie Aames and Dirk Benedict.  Cleavon Little, James Coco, Roddy McDowall, and Stephanie Faracy play the servants.

It doesn’t stop there, though.  Avery Schreiber plays a zookeeper.  Meat Loaf plays a biker who beats up Richard Benjamin.  Ruth Gordon, Stuart Pankin, Pat McCormick, and Scatman Crothers all have cameos.  Even Arnold Schwarzenegger makes an appearance as a gym instructor who knocks Tony Randall out of a second story window.

There are a lot of famous people in Scavenger Hunt.  It’s just too bad that the movie itself is barely watchable and not at all funny.  It tries to go for the zaniness of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but, unless watching Willie Aames steal a clown head from Jack in the Box is your idea of hilarity, the film never comes close to succeeding.  Michael Schultz directed some classic films (like Car Wash) during the 1970s but, unfortunately, he also directed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and this.

Scavenger Hunt used to show up on a late night television, where it was always advertised as starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  (He barely has five minutes of screentime.)  It was released on DVD/Blu-ray earlier this year but watching for the cameos is the only reason to take part in this Scavenger Hunt.

Music Video of the Day: Bat Out Of Hell by Meat Loaf (1979, dir. Arnold Levine)


The following quotes are from the book, I Want My MTV:

“For Bat Out of Hell [in 1977], I talked the label into giving me $30,000 to shoot three live performance clips, and I got them played as trailers before midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That is still the number one selling album in the history of Holland, and I never played there. It’s all because of the “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” video.” –Meat Loaf

“MTV was never very kind to me. They never played any of my videos.” –Meat Loaf

I love to speculate as to the reason why. It certainly doesn’t seem to have stopped him from trying. I can find many music videos that he made during the 80s. It’s telling though, that despite being such a well-known artist, most of the videos aren’t in mvdbase or IMVDb. That includes Dead Ringer for Love that had Cher in it.

What else is telling is that no matter what video it is, or no matter how much it tries to look like a modern music video, they are just the Bat Out Of Hell videos with some window-dressing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not MTV. I’m sure Meat Loaf being overweight didn’t help either. Also, as great as the songs are, it’s not really rock as much as it is rock-tinged opera music, or put more simply, rock opera. If MTV had trouble selling Def Leppard to the point that their videos looked like Duran Duran ones, then imagine trying to sell Meat Loaf. It all adds up to an artist that was kind of destined to fall through the cracks.

A good way to see the difference between Meat Loaf music not making it to MTV, and Meat Loaf music making it to MTV, is to compare his videos to Bonnie Tyler music videos. Her songs were also from Jim Steinman in one form or another. They are operatic as well. You can really hear that on Holding Out For A Hero and Faster Than The Speed Of Night. However, Tyler is pretty, she’s a woman, she’s thin, she can sing, and most importantly, her videos were an event. Even more than thirty years later, you can say her name and the video for Total Eclipse Of The Heart comes to people’s minds. There is symbolism, storylines, an overall vision across several of her best videos, and they are memorable, which makes them re-watchable.

You see a Meat Loaf music video, you like the song, and buy the album. The cycle ends there. That kind of cuts MTV out of the picture when you don’t want to come back to them to see the video. During the time a Meat Loaf video would play, they could be airing Breaking The Law by Judas Priest, Poison Arrow by ABC, and Rio by Duran Duran that all stand separate from the song and bring back viewers. You have to remember that several people who were at the genesis of MTV were from The Movie Channel where it was their job to optimize programming based on demographic research. They needed money and had limited airtime.

Today we live in a world where the record companies can dump everything on YouTube. Who cares if it only brings in a few thousand views? Every single video can be watched concurrently by as many people as there are in the world, and you don’t have to worry about it after that except for licensing deals that you would have to handle anyways. I can’t imagine it costs much to put up either. They also have the benefit of people filling in the gaps by putting the videos up themselves that they can then claim advertising rights on. MTV didn’t have these luxuries.

Of course while this might have been the case for Meat Loaf during the 80s, the 90s were a different story when they and VH1 must have realized that he now fit their more original programming model since he was also an actor on top of being a famous musician. I remember him hosting a game show for VH1. There was also that biopic in 2000 called Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back.

Sing us out of 2016, Meat Loaf!

Val’s Movie Roundup #15: Hallmark Edition


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Citizen Jane (2009) – I was quite surprised that this was actually a Hallmark movie. The acting was strong. The story stayed focused. They actually bothered shooting in San Francisco. This almost could have been a small time B-Movie or something I would expect from Lifetime.

It begins with Jane Alexander’s (Ally Sheedy) aunt being murdered. Jane lives with a man named Tom O’Donnell (Sean Patrick Flanery) and it’s never really a mystery that he did it. The film is about how they prove it. Jane has assistance from Detective Jack Morris (Meat Loaf). I think Meat Loaf did a great job and so does Sheedy. We care, we follow, we get a decent movie. The only problem I found is the same one that was in the Lifetime movie Cleveland Abduction (2015). That movie was also based on real events. Even not knowing the true story behind it, you could tell that the film was a superficial treatment that needed much more time to properly tell the story. The same is true here. At times things will feel like they just jumped from one gear to another. Otherwise, it’s one of the most well made of the Hallmark mystery type movies. Even if there isn’t much of a mystery to it. More like mystery in the Columbo sense of the word where we know exactly what happened, but find out how the person is going to be caught.

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Garage Sale Mystery: The Wedding Dress (2015) – Again, it’s time for Jennifer (Lori Loughlin) to get involved in a mystery. This time she is at an estate sale and when she returns to her shop she discovers that among the things she has purchased is a vintage 1970’s wedding dress. Great! Except there are blood stains in a pocket. And thank god there are. I say that because this establishes a good reason for her to be investigating while the cops don’t. That’s really nice when it comes to the recent deluge of these murder mystery movies that Hallmark is producing. Usually the woman just comes across as a busybody who should just mind her own business. Here she has something that should spark her interest and the further she looks into it, the more she has a reason to bring her police officer friend into the case. It’s still heavily sanitized in the way you expect from these movies. However, for this series, I think it’s the best one I have seen so far.

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Love Under the Stars (2015) – When you boil it down to the basic plot, this is like the Hallmark movie Class (2010). Except it’s much better. It’s about a college girl played by Ashley Newbrough who needs to come up with her thesis in child psychology. Her college advisor played by Barry Bostwick has a niece that teaches a fourth grade class and has Newbrough go there for inspiration. She meets a guy played by Wes Brown who is raising a daughter as a single parent because the mother/wife has passed away. It plays out the way you expect it to and the way Class did, but it’s just better the whole way through. Especially Wes Brown. We can easily understand why she is attracted to him, but he also comes across well as a loving father who appears happy, but also has an underground river of fear and concern for his daughter constantly flowing through him. He is the real reason the film works as well as it does. Newbrough is pretty good too, but she basically walks around the film like she’s hot and horny, to put it bluntly, all the time she’s with him. It makes it difficult to take her character seriously as a real person the way we do with him. In particular, when it comes to her backstory of also losing her mother and the development of the relationship with the daughter. They should have had her dial it back a bit and act less like an infatuated teenager.

Also, the daughter (Jaeda Lily Miller) is a little annoying. I don’t think it’s the actresses fault so much as it is the way her character is written. I don’t think they give her enough credit and let her be more like a real kid with problems, then a cardboard cut out of a troubled child. A little tweaking of her character would have helped.

I really did like the use of the counting thing. When the father leaves her off at school or somewhere else, he counts down a few seconds because he knows she will turn around, usually opening a door, in order to wave to him one more time. She’s afraid he might be gone like her mother is forever. It’s a really nice touch that of course pays off in the end.

All around, this is one of the top tier Hallmark movies I have seen so far.

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Operation Cupcake (2012) – I mentioned not giving the character of the daughter enough credit in Love Under The Stars and the problem is in this film too. This is about Army Colonel Griff Carson (Dean Cain) who comes home on leave to his wife Janet (Kristy Swanson) who runs a cupcake shop. The whole thing is about Griff adjusting to civilian life while also awaiting a possible promotion to General. The problem is they don’t give this guy enough credit. Instead, they drag out his adjustment way too long. It shouldn’t have taken him so long and the change should have been more gradual rather than played for laughs as long as it could. He works at the shop with his wife, and there was at least one scene where you wonder if he actually comes from the Army. He is mobbed by a ton of people at the cupcake store that he suddenly has to service. He doesn’t really attempt to put some of his training to use in order take a bunch of unruly people and get them to act in a civilized manner. The scene doesn’t work and the movie just doesn’t really work either. I think they should have had Cain’s character transition more gradually rather than having him be essentially a brick wall that only comes down in the end. Hallmark avoided that with Recipe For Love and that’s why it is one of my favorites. I also think that Dean Cain was miscast. I have difficultly buying any kind of machismo from his character. He just doesn’t fit the part. This is one that’s fine if you wind up catching it by chance, but don’t put your lure out into the Hallmark waters explicitly to see it.

Final note: I didn’t even notice till I was looking at the credits, but Donna Pescow is in this. She was a baker at the store who has some back and forth with Cain. Of course for most people she is from Saturday Night Fever (1977), but I will always remember her as the mom on the TV Show Out Of This World. Makes me want to break out my bootleg copies of that show. To the best of my knowledge, they still haven’t released that show on DVD.